Thursday, October 16, 2014

Theseus and the Minotaur

"Adventure, mythology, and a Minotaur!
What's not to like?"
 - Frank Cammuso
(from back cover)
I'm not sure I've ever written about Greek or Roman mythology on my blog.  While I've read books of both kinds, I think mythology didn't really come to life for me until I read the Percy Jackson series, much like many readers today.  I've always loved the clever way that Rick Riordan weaves multiple strands of the myths together.  But this first book in the TOON Graphics for Visual Readers series, Theseus and the Minotaur, brings a reality to the myths, brings them to life.

The story opens with a man retelling this myth to two young people on a boat.  He reminds them (and the reader) "This is an ancient one, a heroic tale that has been told thousands of times, transformed by generations of narrators with fertile imaginations." (p. 9)  It is a terrific opening, particularly because this story has many layers of gods and men and wars.  So many layers that I am not sure I can even sum it all up successfully in a way that makes sense.  But I'll try!

Pommaux weaves two strands of the myth together to create one storyline.  First there is the story of Theseus' mother, Aethra.  On the same day, she was in a "watery embrace" with Poseidon, and met and married King Aegeus in secret.  Later, when she delivered her baby boy, Theseus, she believed he had two fathers - a god and a king.  In the meantime, King Aegeus had returned to his country (where he was married to another woman, Medea) and his worries about his country's impending struggle with the island of Crete.  Crete's ruler, Minos had some son issues of his own.  His son, Asterion, was born of his wife's love for a beautiful white bull, and was "monstrous" (p. 15) - half-man, half-bull.  Asterion is better known as the Minotaur.  In order to keep Crete safe from the Minotaur, Minos built a labyrinth.  He ordered Aegeus to bring him tributes on a regular basis.  Those tributes would go into the labyrinth and never return.

Whew! Dizzy yet?  I have to admit, I read this story a few times through before I was able to distill it into its core facts.  And this isn't because Pommaux adds in unnecessary details or spends too much time creating a family tree.  On the contrary, Pommaux uses descriptive language, but in a simple style of writing.  For instance, "Crazed with grief, Minos threatened to wage war against Aegeus unless, every nine years, he sent seven Athenian young men and seven Athenian young women to the Labyrinth." (p. 19)  I love how Pommaux describes Minos as crazed with grief.  I think that is a term that readers may not come across often, but it gives a strong explanation to Minos' actions.  But I digress...

The reason it is so difficult to simplify this text into a couple of paragraphs of summary is because the mythology is complicated.  There are reasons why the humans in this story act the ways they do - love, pride, anger, fear, bravery.  There are reasons, too, why the gods act the way they do - jealousy, temptation, boredom.  All of those individual emotions and actions wreak havoc with the lives down below.  Minos is responsible for appeasing the gods, and asks for a sign from Poseidon.  Poseidon sends a glorious bull, but demands it be sacrificed to him.  Minos ignores Poseidon because he thinks the bull is so beautiful.  So Poseidon gets angry and makes Minos' wife fall in love with the bull.  And we all know how that ends...with the Minotaur.

There are certain themes that Pommaux brings up in the text over and over again.  One of those is the contradiction between free will and fate.  It is Minos' free will that keeps him from doing what Poseidon requires and sacrificing the bull.  Is it his wife's fate to be in love with a bull, or to be the mother of the Minotaur?  Or is it not fate, because Poseidon created this situation as a punishment for Minos?  Minos is a particularly fascinating character to me.  He is proud, brash, a little bit ugly (both physically and in character), yet he never seems to learn from either his punishments or his mistakes.  He sends his beloved son, Androgeous, to Athens, to boast of his strength and might.  Minos loves his son very much, but it is more important to Minos to show him off.  And of course, Minos risks Androgeos' life by doing so.  I feel a little bit of pity for Minos and his bull-headedness.

There are many, many things to discuss in this story - brains v. brawn, the father-son relationships that we see depicted, the idea of the labyrinth... And these multiple themes point out that this is a leap for TOON Books.  Their previous titles have been mostly aimed at beginning readers (with the exception of The Secret of the Stone Frog).  This book marks the start of a new series of titles.  These TOON Graphics for Visual Readers are exciting in their own right.  The books are larger in size (8 1/2 x 11), but the covers have the same smooth, high quality feel.  If you couldn't tell from the summary of the myth, the subject matter is also suited to a slightly older reader.  The fact that the myth is so complex, and rich with thematic matter, means there is lots to discuss with older readers.  To aid in discussion, there is a list of possible questions on the inside back cover.

In this title in the series, I am also really pleased with the shift towards nonfiction.  Not many publishers pay attention to all of the little details that make a book useful in the classroom.  And there are many details that are used effectively here.  There is a map of the action on the front inside cover, pronunciation of the Greek names throughout the text, further reading and an illustrated index.  And if all of that wasn't enough, there is my favorite part - trading card sized text boxes that remind readers of all of the main characters in this story.  The "trading cards" include facts about the characters' families, birth places, siblings, and the meaning of their names.  There is so much supplemental information included here.

I can't wait to explore other titles in this series and I will share them with you in the coming weeks.  If you are interested in more information about the series, there was a great article about TOON Books in the New York Times a few weeks ago, located here.  For now, Theseus and the Minotaur is a great place to start.

Theseus and the Minotaur.  Yvan Pommaux.  TOON Books, 2014.

sent by the publisher for review

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Owls See Clearly At Night and Wild Berries

I have a funny relationship in my mind with other children's literature bloggers (I know they have no idea about it!) and children's literature reviews on the Internet in general.  I love reading and supporting other bloggers.  But if I am already considering reviewing a title on my own blog, I try to avoid any other reviews of that title until I'm done.  I think most reviewers probably do something similar.  I want to record my own thoughts about it, not inadvertently let someone else's thoughts affect my own.  So I mostly use brief summaries or mentions on other blogs to spur my interest in new titles, but don't read longer reviews until I'm done.  With so many titles coming out each year, bloggers have to call each other's attention to the best ones.  But then we each have our own spin on what we love about that  title - what works for us and what doesn't.  I found Julie Flett's titles, Owls See Clearly at Night and Wild Berries, mentioned on a listserv that I follow for Montana librarians.  I am so glad I did.

The first book I requested through ILL was Owls See Clearly at Night.  It is a Michif alphabet book.  In the introduction to this book, Flett explains that "languages are precious; they capture the very essence of a culture."  The Michif language is a mixture of Cree, French and some Ojibwe as well.  It is distinct, and yet Métis are transitioning to become solely English-speaking and losing the Michif language.  They are losing this link to their heritage.  This language is spoken in Montana, which is why it was especially of interest to me.  One of the unique hallmarks of Michif is that one word can often express something that takes a whole sentence in English.

So this alphabet book is just as unique as the culture it depicts.  Some of the Michif words Flett has selected include commands ("Tell a story") and descriptions ("Red Willow") as well as the more standard vocabulary words ("jig", "canoe").  On each page, the letter featured is in a large font.  Then the word is written in Michif, in the same colored font as the large letter, like "La Niizh".  Then finally below this is the word written in English, "snow".

This book is gorgeous for many reasons.  One of them is the way the book is laid out.  The letter/Michif/English text is isolated on one side of the page, floating in white space.  The letter and Michif words are in a muted red or green-blue, colors that echo those in the illustrations.  The white space around the text give the words weight, but they also seem ethereal there on the page - a marvelous juxtaposition.

And then there are the illustrations.  Unfortunately, there isn't a description of Flett's illustrative process, so I can only make an educated guess.  It looks like collages of painted papers.  All of the illustrations, taken together, are a celebration of nature and the people around us.  One of my favorite illustrations is J for "La jig/jig".  On a background of snowy gray-white are darker gray stars.  Two girls stand, arm in arm, clearly dancing.  They wear matching dresses and tan moccasins.  Their hair blows lightly, and their faces are serious, concentrating.  It is a gorgeous page, and you feel included in the moment between sisters.

This book is extremely functional as well as being gorgeous.  Besides the introduction explaining the importance of keeping the Michif language alive, there are also vowel and consonant pronunciation guides at the back of the book.  There are also Michif language resources as well as several books.  I think you know by now that I love the sort of "picture books" that can be expanded to be used by many students or even adults.  This one is no exception.

Wild Berries was published last year, and just like Flett's first book, as soon as I saw it, I knew I wanted to write about it.  This differs from Flett's previous book in several ways.  Firstly, the language emphasized in this text is Cree, not Michif.  The jacket flap tells us that Flett is Cree-Métis, so this possibly comes from another branch of her family than Owls See Clearly at Night.  Wild Berries also is an actual story, instead of teaching concepts through the Michif language.

It is the story of Clarence, who goes with his grandmother to pick wild berries.  As Clarence grows older, he participates, singing as they walk through the forest.  Grandma keeps an eye out for bears; Clarence eats the blueberries that he picks.  They like very different kinds of blueberries - Grandma loves the juicy, almost overripe ones.  Clarence picks the blueberries that are tart and almost underripe.  What matters in this story isn't their differences.  What matters is their shared experience, and the gratitude they also share.  As they leave the clearing, Clarence sets out blueberries for the animals and birds, to say thank you to them for sharing their berries.

While there are some things that are very different between Flett's two books, there are some things that unite the two beautifully.  One of these is a feeling of simplicity and serenity.  The tone of both books is calm, simple, but the language is chosen carefully for full impact.  For example, "Clarence likes big blueberries, sour blueberries, blueberries that go POP in his mouth."  The words give you a tangible feeling along your teeth as you read (don't they?).  We can sense exactly how those blueberries POP.  The words are strung together like poetry, where every word counts.

There is also the theme of family.  Much like the dancing sisters in Owls See Clearly at Night, there is a closeness between Clarence and his Grandma that doesn't require conversation.  They are content to pick together, not talking.  It is truly a moment to celebrate the nature around them.  This is a ritual to both of them, with the song as they approach the clearing and the thank you as they leave.  And just because it is a familiar ritual doesn't mean the time together isn't still appreciated.  It is a sweet time, and not just because the blueberries.

Finally, the illustrations are similar, yet not the same.  She uses many of the same earthy colors here that she did in Owls, and the same stark backgrounds.  There are very simple shapes and lines here.  But what I love most is the pop of a tomato red in each picture.  Grandma's skirt is red, and at some points a fox or birds appear and highlight the rich colors.  It brings almost an autumnal feel to this title, but it has the same ethereal feeling as Owls See Clearly at Night.

There is a pronunciation guide at the back of Wild Berries too, which helps explain to readers the dialect in which this book was created.  There is also a recipe for wild blueberry jam, which is mouth-watering.  Both of these books are gorgeously created books, but they also have a gorgeous meaning as well.  I highly recommend them, and can't wait for her next book.

Owls See Clearly at Night.  Julie Flett.  Simply Read Books, 2010.
Wild Berries.  Julie Flett.  Simply Read Books, 2013.

both titles borrowed via ILL

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Rookie Toddler Series

Sadly, Frances and Gloria are too old for board books now.  We still have a few of our favorites on our shelves - I mention Dinosaur's Binkit in my post, but we also love Baby Cakes and the Sandra Boynton series about Pookie.  They are read pretty infrequently, but I still catch Gloria reading them every once in a while.  I miss having board books in our house.  That was a pretty special time for us.  So it made me happy this spring to see the Rookie Toddler series featured on a School Library Journal webcast.  Side note:  I love those webcasts, and this isn't the first time I've learned about new books from a webcast that I've reviewed here.  In this case, I am excited to say that my request for some books to review has led to a relationship with Scholastic Library Publishing, and I'll be featuring many more of their titles in the future.

But back to the Rookie Toddler series.  I requested this series because I was interested in seeing how nonfiction could be created successfully for the youngest readers.  How could they be simple enough for toddlers to understand, hold up to repeated readings, and also impart information to young children?  The good news is that they do all of those successfully. I was also pleasantly surprised to realize that while they are board books, they can expand to be used with children up through preschool.  As you'll see in the next few paragraphs, some of the concepts that are covered are a little more sophisticated (like It's Time For...), but that doesn't mean that the subjects won't be meaningful to younger children.

The books are very durable.  They are, of course, board books.  They have die-cut scalloped edges along the right-hand side.  This makes it easy for chubby hands to grasp and hold on.  The glossy clovers are smooth, so pieces won't bend off, like has happened with many of our other well-loved books.  All of the books are illustrated with photographs.  The photos are primarily on white backgrounds, which help the photographs stand out even more.  The choice of a plain, stark background makes it easier for young eyes (even babies) to focus on the photos.  This series is very well designed!

The first individual title that I'd like to talk about is Shapes That Go.  On each double-paged spread, the left hand page shows a shape.  The shapes are vibrantly colored, which pop against the stark white background.  The shape is identified under the picture.  On the right, the shape is highlighted on a vehicle.  For example, the triangle is highlighted on a picture of a bicycle, along with the text "See the triangle."  The color is consistent to help toddlers track what is going on in the spread.  The triangle on the left (and the word underneath) are yellow, and so is the sentence on the right (and the highlighting around the triangle on the bike).  My only minor disappointment with this title is that it doesn't identify the vehicles.  But in a fourteen page book, it is teaching children the concepts of colors, shapes and vehicles in a simple, easy to follow format.  It's very impressive!

The next title is Counting 1 to 20.  This one divides the double-paged spread into four columns, using a line of little pawprints.  They are all a cheery blue color, and again, it helps train the reader's eye to move down the column.  Each column shows a certain number of the same animal; for instance, "6 six pandas".  Toddlers see the number and see it spelled out.  Again, color is used repetitively (and effectively) to match the text and send the subtle message that the number and words are related.  There is plenty of white space surrounding the animals being counted, which means that children can put their finger on each animal as they count.  While I love this one for its cuteness factor (and Gloria is still enjoying counting with it), it might be a bit too picky to mention that some of the animals are clearly baby animals, and perhaps should have been described with that name (foals, kids, kittens, etc.).  However, not all of the animals were noticeably babies, so maybe that was a conscious decision.

One of the most ambitious titles is It is Time for... .  This is the book that I mentioned earlier would work with preschool-aged children too.  There is a label to identify the general time of the day - morning, noon, evening.  There is a sentence describing the activity the child is performing in the photograph.  There are also both a digital and an analog clock to help children connect to the specific time of day.  This book is unusual in that the photographs fill the whole page.  But the photographs are sharp, and it is easy to identify the activity.  The photographs focus on the child, but also show many different families and parents.  It adds a feeling of warmth and caring to the book.

The Seasons mixes some of the hallmarks of this series in a new dynamic way.  From the cover on, each season is associated with a color.  So winter, for example, is matched with the color blue.  On the spread that talks about winter, the word 'winter' is in bold blue print.  There are three short sentences that describe the weather conditions for that season.  There are also four pictures framed in that same blue color to tie everything together.  Children are performing a variety of tasks and activities that can be done in that season too.  In spring, children are walking in the rain, gardening, playing baseball, and flying a kite.  I like how in all of these photos children are outside and active, even in the snowy winter.  And the photos include a diverse group of children and adults, making it feel fairly inclusive.

Can You Say Please? is another book that could be used at any time up to kindergarten.  The concept here is manners (obviously).  Each double-paged spread includes one full-page photograph.  On the other page is a sentence describing what the child would say in that situation.  "When I want a turn to speak, I say 'excuse me'".  The important words are in a different color, so they are emphasized.  The other thing I appreciate about this title (although this applies to the other titles too) is that the photos are very carefully chosen.  Even a very young child can grasp why that child needs to use that word at that time.  Again, there is a multiculturally diverse group of children included in these pictures.

Finally, Red Pepper Yellow Squash is probably my favorite in the series.  It combines the concept of colors along with a variety of vegetables.  In this book, the background of each page matches the color of the vegetables and the word in the text.  The brown page features potatoes, with the sentence "The potatoes are brown."  The background, actual potatoes, and text are all a subtly different brown, but close enough that they "read" as the same color.  I think that is very effective.  Plus, the vegetables look shiny and yummy without looking too perfect.  I love that the book includes eggplant and cauliflower along with those kid favorites, peas and carrots.  Again, Gloria loved identifying the various vegetables that we eat on a regular basis.

One other thing that I love about these books is that the last spread in each book is that the last spread reviews the concept again, along with a storytime tip.  In It is Time For...that last page shows a lineup of thumbnail shots of the day's activities, along with a digital and analog clock for each time.  The storytime tip recommends that the reader could go back through and talk about what that particular child's family does at each time.  This helps give some suggestions for book use and how to extend its use beyond its own pages.  I love this series and am grateful to Scholastic for allowing me to review it!  Look for more Scholastic books to come.

Can You Say Please?  Children's Press: Scholastic, 2014.
Counting 1 to 20. Children's Press: Scholastic, 2014.
It is Time for... Children's Press: Scholastic, 2014.
Red Pepper Yellow Squash: A Book of Colors.  Children's Press: Scholastic, 2014.
The Seasons. Children's Press: Scholastic, 2014.
Shapes That Go. Children's Press: Scholastic, 2014.

All books sent by the publisher in exchange for a honest review.

Friday, September 12, 2014

The Haunted Library

Haunted libraries sound very cool, don't they?  When I was asked to be part of a blog tour for this series, I was very excited about it.  I worked in several libraries in my career, and I was often in those libraries after closing.  It was always a little creepy, but in a sort of exciting way.  I wondered whether I might catch a glimpse of a ghost.  Sadly, I never did.  But with the Haunted Library series by Dori Hillestad Butler, readers can explore a haunted library in a safe, fun way.  Frances and Gloria haven't been able to keep their hands off this easy chapter book series since they arrived!

Interestingly enough, this series doesn't actually begin in a library.  Kaz, the nine year old ghost who is the focus of this series, is haunting a school with his family.  There are a few problems, though.  Kaz doesn't like to do some of the things that most ghosts do automatically.  He hates trying to pass through walls (it made him feel skizzy, or sick, the only time he tried), he can't glow or wail (which is the way ghosts allow people to see or hear them).  And he is desperately afraid of the Outside, where you can't control where the wind takes you.  His brother and grandparents had been sucked into the Outside and were now lost to them.

So without basic ghost skills, Kaz is really in trouble when the schoolhouse is demolished and the wind sucks him Outside.  Even worse, he is sucked in a different direction than the rest of his family.  He's left alone.  But then he blows into the window of a house, and it turns out to be the library of the title.  Kaz soon meets up with Claire, a young girl who lives upstairs from the library (how cool is that?).  Her grandma Karen is the librarian, and her parents run a detective agency.  And to Kaz's surprise, the library is already haunted.  An even bigger surprise - Claire can see Kaz!

I want to not do too much summarizing of the plots of the stories, although I'll have to describe some points as I review.  I read both The Haunted Library, which begins the series, and The Ghost in the Attic, which is Book Two.  Book Three (The Ghost Backstage) will be available in November.  These books are each about 125 pages, with lots of illustrations throughout.  They are perfect easy chapter books for 2nd through 4th graders.  They look interesting and accessible and will be great additions to any collections.

Part of what I like about these books so much is Kaz himself.  Yes, he's a ghost, but first and foremost, he is a young boy.  There is no mention of what happened to cause Kaz and his family to become ghosts - they are really like any other family.  There are just a few other restrictions.  And once Kaz is separated from his family, you see that he longs for them, just like any other 9 year old would.  And I think that is very comforting in an odd way.  Even though he's a ghost, Kaz actually behaves like many children would in the same situation.  There is nothing scary about Kaz at all, and he is very relatable.  So it's a fun way for young readers to explore ghosts without being scared.

Another thing I like about this series so far is that the "hauntings" are very explainable, which I think makes them more understandable to young readers.  My interactions with elementary school readers is that it is primarily older grade students who enjoy reading something that is scary and has no explanation.  New readers want there to be an explanation that makes sense in the end.  And both of these hauntings are explained in enough detail to satisfy them.

Kaz and Claire decide to form their own ghost detective agency, because Claire's parents won't let her participate in theirs.  Claire can see Kaz, but no other human (Kaz calls them solids) can.  So Kaz can go along with Claire on cases.  But the two immediately run into a problem - we've already seen that Kaz doesn't like to go Outside.  So Kaz and Claire problem solve - Claire ends up carrying Kaz around in a plastic water bottle.  It's a perfect situation which allows Kaz to explore his surroundings without risking being blown away.  Kaz is particularly taken with cell phones!  I love how Claire and Kaz work together as a team - it's a great friendship.

The illustrations are perfect for this series.  They are slightly cartoonish without being silly.  Claire, Kaz, and all the other characters look animated and full of personality.  The illustrations vary in size, too, which keeps readers moving through the text at a rapid pace.  It keeps chapters or even blocks of text from feeling too long or cumbersome for a reader who is just tackling their first real chapter books.

There is much more I could say about these books, but I will save it for my next review.  I am definitely going to request Book #3 for review.  I'll also report back on what Frances and Gloria think about these books.

Thanks again to Dori Hillestad Butler for appearing.  For other stops on the Haunted Library Blog Tour please check

The Haunted Library.  Dori Hillestad Butler.  Grosset & Dunlap, 2014.
The Haunted Library: The Ghost in the Attic.  Dori Hillestad Butler.  Grosset & Dunlap, 2014.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Benny and Penny in Lost and Found!

You all know how much I love TOON Books.  And you've heard repeatedly how much Gloria in particular loves TOON Books.  But did you know that the New York Times also loves TOON Books?  That's right - they do!  I am so happy to see this article share some of the things I love best about this company.  I was lucky enough to get the books that are mentioned in this article and I'm looking forward to sharing those titles with you this fall.  But in the meantime, I'd like to introduce you to do the latest Benny and Penny title: Benny and Penny in Lost and Found!
As I linked above, we read and reviewed the last book in the Benny and Penny series, Benny and Penny in Lights Out!, and Gloria cheered when this one arrived.  Just to catch you up, Benny is the older, more emotional sibling, and Penny is the younger, more practical sister.  And they show their personalities from the very first page of this story.  Benny announces "I'm in a BAD mood!" (p. 9).  When Penny asks why, it turns out that Benny has lost his beloved pirate hat (it was also left outside in Lights Out!).  She retorts "AGAIN?" (p. 9).  Benny, who is the one who feels everything strongly, continues "How can I be in a good mood when I'm in a bad mood?" (p. 10).

He feels the loss of the pirate hat very much, and sets off to find it.  Penny has some practical, sisterly advice ("In this fog? You'll get LOST!" (p. 12)) but finally agrees to help him search.  They set off, and have some alleged sightings of the pirate hat.  But just like in Lights Out!, the shadows turn out to be anything but the pirate hat.  One of the shadows is a dinosaur? a lizard? (Frances says lizard, Gloria says dinosaur) that tags along with them for a few minutes before they are all frightened by one last shadow.  This one looks suspiciously like...a cat.

They all scurry away as quickly as they can.  When the danger is over, Penny scolds Benny, "Benny, you always lead us into TROUBLE!" (p. 26).  And sure enough, he has.  Both Benny and Penny recognize that they are lost.  This is where something interesting happens for Benny and Penny.  Their relationship shifts from a more challenging, adversarial one to more of a team attitude.  Benny, who is usually hot-headed and emotional, settles down in the crisis.  Penny, usually so practical and slightly disapproving, melts down.  She yells "WHAT'S THE BIG DEAL ABOUT THAT OLD HAT?!!!" (p. 27).  Benny is put in the position of comforting his younger sister.  Once the meltdown is over, then they can go about the business of finding home safely, where indeed, the pirate hat is waiting for them.

While Benny and Penny's mother is never seen, she is still within earshot, providing for them.  Their mother is the one who finds Benny's pirate hat while the children are out searching.  It's worth noting that way back at the start of the story, Penny asks Benny if he's checked in the house before they set off on their adventure.  Of course, when they return home, their mother tells Benny his hat was in the closet all along.  Penny, wisely, never says a word.  As soon as he finds the pirate hat waiting, mercurial Benny is in a good mood again.

Being lost as the two mice are can be really terrifying for a young child.  Their mother has several adages about being lost that Penny repeats during their adventure.  Penny first announces in a confident, slightly snotty tone " Mommy says 'When you lose something...think of the last place you had it.'" (p. 11).  Benny ignores this advice, of course.  When they are really lost and upset, Benny remembers "Mommy says 'If you get lost, always go back the way you came.'" (p. 31).  And when they find their way back, she is there waiting to comfort them.  That helps reassure young readers that losing things, even your way, might turn out okay at the end.

I think the illustrations do an excellent job of bridging the gap between reality and fiction.  These are mice, after all, but with their strong personalities, you might forget it.  While they wear some outerwear (a sweatshirt and jacket), they really do look and act like mice do.  Their funny faces are full of human expression.  The dinosaur/lizard is all cute, though.  While he scares the siblings at first, he is just as scared by the menacing cat as they are, and he scampers quickly away.  The fog is almost another character in the book.  It obscures most of the scenery, giving an added feeling of tension to the story.  It's cloudy, dark and mysterious, with a touch of swampy.

I almost always close my reviews of books in the TOON line by talking about the company's literacy efforts.  Gloria is just beginning kindergarten next week, and her teacher came for a home visit, as is mandated by the district.  I made a point of talking to him about TOON Books, and showed him this book.  What I always love about these books is TOON's leveling system, and how clear it is.  On the back cover, this book is indicated as Level Two.  When you look inside the back of the book, there is a page of tips for parents and teachers about how to read comics with kids.  There is also an explanation of the levels.  This book is intended for students in Grades 1-2, and also includes Lexile, Guided Reading and reading recovery information as well.  And TOON gives a handy breakdown of what Level 2 means to them:
  • 300-700 words
  • short sentences and repetition
  • story arc with few characters in a small world
  • 1-4 panels per page
This is all valuable information for those of us wondering if this is the right book for our child.  I also told Gloria's new teacher about the online cartoon maker, which we like to use often.  I can't say enough about TOON Books and how unique their efforts are.

I hope there are many more Benny and Penny adventures for us to read.  I love their sibling relationship, as well as the precarious situations they get themselves into.

Benny and Penny in Lost and Found! Geoffrey Hayes.  TOON Books, 2014.

sent by the publisher for review

Monday, August 25, 2014

The Dolphins of Shark Bay

"I am summer, come to lure you away from your computer,
come dance on my fresh grass
dig your toes into my beaches." 
- Oriana Green

Sorry for the lack of blog posts in the past month.  It's a combination of things around here.  Summer in Montana is very, very short.  Already this last weekend the temperature was below 50 degrees!  You need to take advantage of every sunny moment.  At the end of the spring, I read this blog post.  It resonated with my worn out feeling at the end of the spring, when we were finishing up with lots of activities, celebrations, and events.  I decided to take the summer off.  We wouldn't schedule anything, but just be free for whatever came up.  I also made the decision to turn off the cable, so they couldn't just sit down and veg in front of the TV after work and daycare.

So, we've basically spent the summer outside, as much as possible.  We have a plot in our community garden, and a playground behind our house to keep us busy. The girls have also taken out all of their toys and played with them over and over again. This leads to other problems this summer, particularly that our house is always extremely...lived-in.  And between spending lots of quality time together, and cleaning up after said quality time together, there hasn't been very much time to create new blog posts.  I had a vision at the start of the summer that I would use all my "free" time to write posts and catch up on my blog pile.  Instead, thanks to some generous publishers I have been reviewing for, my pile teeters even higher.  But I'm not complaining, honest!  I'm just redoubling my effort to get some posts written.

This book is one of those long overdue posts.  But that doesn't mean I am any less excited to talk about it, just that I haven't had time to write up my thoughts.  I couldn't believe my luck last summer when Pamela S. Turner sent me an email, asking if I'd like a copy of the latest in the Scientist in the Field series, The Dolphins of Shark Bay.  If you've been reading my blog for awhile, you'll know I've reviewed many other books in the series, including here and here.  I was so excited to get this title, another quality, fascinating addition to the Scientist in the Field series,  Plus she sent me the best dolphin notecard, too!

This book takes place in Shark Bay, in the western part of Australia.  Janet Mann is a scientist who has made it her life's passion to study one particular trait pf the dolphins that live there - their tool use.  Now don't get any ideas of dolphins using saws underwater to build new homes.  Even more interesting (and more refined!), they are placing sea sponges on their noses (or rostrums) to help them scrape along the ocean's bottom.  The sponge protects their rostrums as they search for fish hiding in the channel's sand, rock and coral.  Once they unearth a fish, they quickly drop the sponge and gulp the fish.

Dolphins as a species are known for their echolocation skills.  This helps them in many ways - bouncing their sonar off an object helps the dolphin form a three-dimensional image of something in the deeps of the ocean.  They use this information to eat, navigate, find mates and survive.  But the dolphins who are "spongers" aren't using echolocation to find food at all.  Turner describes the dolphins who frequent this part of Shark Bay as searching "half blind" (p. 25) for food.  The channel bottom is covered with rocks and other debris that make it difficult for the dolphins to catch fish.  Conversely, the fish have a better survival rate in the channel's rocks because they aren't discovered as frequently.

So Mann, having seen this behavior performed beginning twenty-five years ago, decided to study this interesting phenomenon more closely.One of the more unusual things she and her research team have found is that this sponging is passed down through dolphin mothers in the pods that frequent Shark Bay.  If you are a dolphin, and your mother didn't sponge, you won't learn that tool use anywhere else.  Mann explains this quirk in this way: "Females are the specialists and the innovators because they're under a lot of pressure to support their calves....If you're a female dolphin who can develop a new way of making a living instead of competing with other dolphins, that's a big advantage.'" (p. 27)

As her team observed more than 600 dolphins, they also documented other unusual feeding techniques - a dolphin who hunts at night, beach hunters (they beach their prey and quickly get back into the water after eating it), and many more specialized behaviors.  These behaviors, too, are often shown in mothers and daughters.  Possibly because mothers have to be smart to get enough fish to feed themselves and their children.  It could also be because daughters stay with their mothers longer than sons do, and see the benefits of these hunting behaviors.

I learned so many interesting facts about dolphins through The Dolphins at Shark Bay.  One chapter looks at alliances of male dolphins and how they bully females into mating with them.  They herd a female away from her group, separating her and badgering her.  Young males practice this strategy on each other to learn teamwork.  They also begin to recognize which other dolphins they might want to form an alliance with.  Along with mating, it really is survival of the fittest in Shark Bay.  All of the adaptations that these pods exhibit help them survive in the wild.

And let me re-emphasize that these dolphins, although observed frequently for research, are wild.  One of the changes that have been made at Shark Bay as a result of Janet's research was to something called dolphin tourism.  When Mann first arrived in the bay, hundreds of people might be in the shallows, throwing fish to the dolphins.  The mothers especially began to learn that the beach was the easiest way to get their babies the food they needed.  SO they stayed near the beach, begging for fish.  As a result, dolphin mothers were overfed, and the only feeding technique babies learned was to head for the beach.  As a result of their knowledge, the government regulates this practice much more strictly.  Only a few volunteers feed selected dolphins a few fish - now the mothers aren't overfed, and the young learn the right way to forage, including sponging.

Finally, Turner does a terrific job of detailing the scientists at work.  She shows one of the team "pole sponging" - imitating the dolphins around him to learn how this works, and why dolphins might engage in it.  She writes about different sampling methods used to monitor the dolphins, and even talks about how they select dolphins to be in the study.  I also really appreciated how when a hypothesis was proven wrong by Mann's team, they worked to come up with alternative hypotheses to solve research questions.  It's all fascinating, and Turner conveys her own enthusiasm for this project throughout the book - she even participates in the research!

Another thing I love about this well-designed series is its inclusion of back matter.  There is an index, additional facts about dolphins, websites, recommended reading, and more citations.  I have always loved how this series develops children's understanding of not only science and research, but the world we live in.  There is tons of material for the interested student to continue learning.  

For one brief moment in my young life, I wanted to be a dolphin trainer.  I had grown up in San Diego and loved dolphins for their intelligence and creativity.  I wish this book had been around when I was young.  I might now be out in Australia with Janet Mann, learning more about these amazing creatures.

The Dolphins of Shark Bay.  By Pamela S. Turner, with photographs by Scott Tuason.  Houghton Mifflin Books for Children, 2013.

sent by the author

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Confessions of a Book Dad - Guest Post

Note to readers:  This is OBVIOUSLY a guest post, since I'm not a dad :)  But it is exactly how I feel about my girls and reading too.  I was lucky enough to connect with David Simon through the Summer Author Promo Blitz.  This is my second year participating, and I love the authors I've connected with so far!!  His new book is called Trapped in Lunch Lady Land, and it's a great choice for middle grade readers (and funny too!).  Without further ado, here is David's great post:

I’m a book dad.


I was a book kid and a book teen, on a first name basis with my local librarian, my nose always buried in one crumbling, broken-spined paperback or another. I know many intelligent, successful adults who put away books when they reached adulthood and never looked back. Not me. I kept right on reading, and became a book guy. When it turned out the woman I fell in love with and married was also a reader, it came as no real surprise.


When our son was born, reading to him seemed as natural as feeding and changing him, and just as integral to his proper care. Pat the Bunny, Goodnight Moon and The Very Hungry Caterpillar were early favorites. You just can’t go wrong with the classics. Eric was a young reader, also not much of a surprise. He devoured Magic Treehouse and Boxcar Children books, inhaled Goosebumps and Hardy Boys. We took turns reading the first Harry Potter book to him, a chapter each night, completely enthralled. My wife and I made a pact not to read ahead. I admit here, for the first time, that I sometimes cheated. Eric read the second Potter book by himself, and the die was cast. He was a book kid.


My daughter Hannah, born two years after Eric, not so much. She loved being read to, but the reading bug never really bit her. In a house filled to overflowing with books, she often had trouble finding something that interested her. She was, and is, smart and creative, a wonderful writer and musician, but finding a book that demanded her attention was challenging. When it did happen, she read and reread them obsessively. Harry Potter did the trick, as did Angus, Thongs and Full Frontal Snogging and its sequels, and the Mates, Dates books. Hunger Games had our entire family reading, in shifts. (By the time Mockingjay came along, we gave up and bought multiple copies for the house.) The same thing happened with The Fault In Our Stars.


Our second daughter, McKenna, is also a reader. She’s 14 now. Her friends and her pass around books like they are sacred objects, from the aforementioned Fault In Our Stars to Divergent and The Mortal Instruments books. They write fan fic, and talk about their favorite characters as if they were real. In a way, the best way, I guess they are.


As a book dad, I love recommending favorites to my kids. Sometimes it’s easy. Eric is 21 now, and we have virtually the same taste in fiction. We buy each other books all the time, and it’s always something we want to read as well. Recent choices include The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman, Stephen King’s Doctor Sleep, The Girl With All the Gifts by M.R. Carey, Lev Grossman’s Magician trilogy and Jo Walton’s Among Others. We have two main points of disagreement. One is e-readers, which I have accepted as a necessary, and convenient, evil, but which he refuses to truck with. I sometimes purchase something on my Kindle I know he desperately wants to read, just to entice him, but so far he’s resisted. The other concerns the subject of rereading, which I rarely do. Too many novels I haven’t yet read, is my position. Eric has reread Ender’s Game and His Dark Materials so many times that he’s had to buy new copies.


Recommending books to my daughters is much more hit and miss. McKenna may be a reader, but at least at the moment, her friend’s picks carry more weight than mine, and she likes what she likes. She currently favors, quote, “Dystopian series with a love interest.” Luckily for her, there are plenty of those floating around. I did score with Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs and The Coldest Girl In Coldtown by Holly Black. Hannah is the toughest nut to crack, but when I recommend something she likes, it’s uniquely satisfying. Dorothy Allison’s Bastard Out of Carolina and Lynda Barry’s Cruddy are dark, challenging novels that I love, and that Hannah connected with. I’m hoping to get her to try Geek Love next.


For the record, all three kids have read Trapped In Lunch Lady Land. Without threats, even.


I’m a lot of things, like most people. A husband and father, a graphic designer and illustrator, a published author, a soccer sideline cheerleader. And proudly, a book dad.
David Simon has a new book out, Trapped in Lunch Lady Land.  Check it out of your nearest library, or it is available at bookstores near you!!